Paper-string symbols of freedom fill Afghan skies

Kite-flying, a decades-old tradition for Afghans, makes a comeback. Like most entertainment, it was banned by the Taliban.

Six-year-old Mobashair tugs at the string of his purple kite. It soars above the Chindaoul neighborhood of Kabul - dancing, flitting above the poverty and problems below.

Suddenly, the kite dips perilously close to the rooftop of a group of rebel Northern Alliance soldiers. Mobashair tries to control it from his own rooftop perch, cutting his finger with the string in the process.

Then the kite dive-bombs to the narrow dirt road, where Mobashair's friends fight to retrieve it. But the paper has torn away, leaving a skeleton of sticks and tangle of string.

"I don't care," Mobashair shrugs, bashfully. "I have another."

"And I have five kites!" injects his friend, Jawad. "I fly them every day."

Just the kind of small talk and play you'd expect from little boys - about anywhere but here. Until a couple of weeks ago, kite-flying - along with just about any other form of fun - wasn't acceptable. But today, kites are making a comeback in Afghanistan, where the Taliban restrictions are disappearing as quickly as the radical Islamic militia's five-year rule is disintegrating.

The result is a sky above the capital city bright with darting flashes of color, smiles on children's faces, and big sales along Kabul's "Kite Street," as Afghans restore a fond tradition.

Mobashair and his friends, running on their muddy rooftops, are back to acting like young carefree boys. But the kite venders are more circumspect.

"The Taliban came and burned and tore the kites. They even burned the string," says kite salesman Khan Mohamed Tadjadeh, who tried to keep his stock hidden for half a decade.

"They said it was illegal, according to Islamic Sharia law," Mr. Tadjadeh says, sitting in his hole-in-the-wall shop surrounded by colorful kites. "But the prophet Muhammad - peace be upon him - never said anything about kites!

"They said we were spending our time and money on something useless," Tadjadeh adds. "They were preventing fun."

The Taliban claimed one of its reasons for banning kite-flying was that those on the rooftops could look into private neighboring compounds and catch a glimpse of a woman's face. "That was just a pretext," Tadjadeh says.

"The neighbors are all sisters and brothers, anyway," adds Mama Ghauso, an elderly passerby. "Kite-flying has been a tradition for 60 years. It was a hobby - even ministers and presidents were flying kites. People were betting on it."

Afghans say they are as passionate about kites as they are about volleyball. During the reign of King Mohammad Zahir Shah, ousted in 1973, the national body for kite-flying was attached to the national Olympics.

Every Friday - days when kite sales in a single shop might have reached 300 to 400 - Kabulis would take their kites to a park south of the capital called Babra Karmal, beside a river.

The Taliban put a stop to that, as they did to most forms of entertainment. Television was outlawed; card-playing and nonreligious music were banned. Women could not work, and were required to wear the head-to-toe burqa if they ventured outside the home.

"We were afraid, we couldn't say anything," says Barad, another elderly man with a dark-green turban. If Taliban enforcers saw a kite, he says, "they would knock on the door and drag you out."

"Before, everything was prevented," pipes in Tadjadeh. "Now we are free."

Free, indeed, as the kite-selling business rebounds. Among the fastest sellers are kites painted with the image of beautiful women with long, flowing hair. In Tadjadeh's shop, one wooden spindle - used for winding string - is painted with a lady and the hopeful line: "I love you."

"They sell well," Tadjadeh says. "Especially for those who are in love."

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